The Composers Union: Time For Transparency

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The last 30 days have seen a rapid escalation in the number of questions, concerns and assumptions about the composer unionization effort. As the Association of Media Composers and Lyricists (AMCL) pushes hard to create a viable composers union, it is critical that the group’s decision-making process come out from behind the closed doors of AMCL Board Meetings and operate as a transparent and fair process for making decisions about the group’s goals, direction and operations that is inclusive, not exclusive.

While some industry social groups can be run by “invitation-only” boards that conduct closed board meetings, a composers union is a much different organization that, through its very existence, will divide our industry into union and non-union composers. Every composer in the industry has a vested interest in the outcome of AMCL decisions regarding eligibility, dues, working conditions, health insurance, benefits and much more. The situation cries out for transparency and accountability, if for nothing else to lend legitimacy to the proceedings and ensure proper representation for and accountability to composers at all levels of our industry. Simply put, we cannot run the composers union like a country club where you’re “invited” into the decision-making process if “they like you.” That kind of personality politics has no place in a serious industry trade organization.

Speaking of legitimacy, I’m hearing the term “working composer” being used more and more to define who should be eligible to be a member of the composers union. But the term “working composer” means different things to different people. A composer in Tulsa who works full time writing music for libraries that appear on network TV can be just as easily called a “working composer” as one who lives in LA and writes a library of music directly for a sitcom or reality series. Our industry is evolving quickly, and we must recognize that today, music is hired, licensed, and used in very different ways than it was only 10 years ago. Our union must be a forward-looking organization that embraces technology and the changes in business and creative practices that technology has created.

We have enough organizations in our industry that conduct their board meetings in secret and hand down edicts to us once they are decided by the chosen few who are “invited” to participate. These organizations often work hard to avoid any personal accountability of board members by keeping board minutes secret and creating election rules that massively favor incumbents. This is exactly the road we must not go down with the composers union…

* It’s time to create a truly inclusive organization with levels of membership and board representation for composers at various levels of the industry. The alternative is multiple competing unions and associations (student composers union, library composers union, low budget film composers union, etc) which makes no sense and is counterproductive. Let’s create a big tent and be inclusive to build a single, representative organization with strength in numbers.

* It’s time to realize that establishing fair working conditions and eliminating demands for free music are just as important (if not more important) to some subsets in our community as health insurance and pension are to the group currently running the AMCL. Composers are not a one-size-fits-all group, and different groups within the industry have different needs and priorities that an inclusive composers union should strive to address as is reasonable.

* It’s time to realize that the AMPTP is only one of the many organizations and groups that influence the hiring and pay of composers and are deserving of a relationship of some kind with the composers union. I’m not saying that the AMCL can or should be everything to everyone, or that all relationships must be built at once, but by the same token the AMCL should not limited to only one agenda to serve one group or level of composers in the industry. Negotiations with the AMPTP are likely years away, and there’s no reason not to pursue constructive, beneficial relationships with other important industry groups like the WGA that are in a position to deliver immediate, real benefits for composers in terms of better hiring practices and workplace conditions.

* It’s time to realize that if we have built strong, productive relationships with other groups (such as other unions) before we get to the AMPTP bargaining table, we will be in a stronger, more established position when it’s time for AMPTP bargaining, even for benefits-only.

* It’s time to open up AMCL board meetings to any and all who wish to observe the decision making process, and to give interested composers at all levels of the industry a reasonable and representative voice in AMCL decisions as they happen, not after they happen.

* And it’s time for the leadership of a composers union to actually represent the diversity of composers with music in film and television today. This means opening up the “invitation only” mentality and having the maturity to work with and allow dissenting points of view from those who are passionate and motivated.

The benefit of more open communication and an open decision-making process will be the elimination of so many of the assumptions, often incorrect, about what the AMCL is up to and how they intend to go about creating a composers union. After decades of no representation in the industry, we need and deserve an open, transparent and accountable organization that composers across the industry can be proud to be a part of, having had a hand as they wish in the creation, direction, and goals of this organization. The time for transparency is now.


  • music recorder
    May 21, 2010 @ 4:33 pm

    how come there are no women on the “board” of this proposed union? They write music too!

  • Richard Bellis
    May 21, 2010 @ 5:03 pm

    Maybe because there is no “board”?

  • Mark Northam
    May 21, 2010 @ 5:31 pm

    I’ve used the word “board” here informally as it’s the name that AMCL folks have used in conversations with me. Officially I believe the title is “organizing committee”, but in any case, it’s the 11 composers who have been “invited” to join the organizing committee and who are making all the official AMCL decisions at this point. They are: Bruce Broughton, Sean Callery, Alf Clauson, Ray Colcord, James DiPasquale, Richard Gibbs, Christopher Klatman, Vivek Maddala, Richard Marvin, Mike Post and Snuffy Walden.

  • Richard Bellis
    May 21, 2010 @ 5:43 pm

    Blogging would be a lot less fun if there was a prerequisite of at least elementary knowledge of what is required to achieve collective bargaining status in the United States of America.
    This is an organizing committee. It’s job is to establish a collective bargaining organization under the auspices of the Teamsters. Not to decided what the rules will be. Before the rules….

    The Teamsters must go before the AMPTP and ASK for “recognition” of the composers and lyricists. The AMPTP will say “No” and the Teamsters will say “Gee, getting the Honey Wagon on the location set of ….. will probably be difficult”
    This is not just a bunch of guys who decided “Hey, let’s have a union!”

  • Mark Northam
    May 21, 2010 @ 6:18 pm

    Yes, Richard, you are correct – basically there are 2 ways to get recognized by the AMPTP – the easy way (through negotiations) and the hard way (by a percentage of working composers signing union cards). Unfortunately, the specifics of that calculation – especially who qualifies to sign a card and have it counted if they use this method – are subjects the Teamsters refuse to discuss at the moment. There is no easy definition for “working composer” these days.

    I think it’s pretty clear that the organizing committee guys have already made some major policy decisions regarding the direction and goals of the union – specifically, that all work will be towards “benefits only” at this point and that initiatives with other (non-AMPTP) organizations like the WGA Letter where the WGA took a position against composers being required to write free music as part of bake/spec-offs, not to mention any addressing other workplace issues, will not be actively pursued at this point. They of course reserve the right to pursue these issues in the future, and I hope they do, but we must recognize that the organizing board is already making decisions that may have a profound effect on the unionization process and the benefits that are eventually delivered from a composers union. These decisions deserve to be made in a highly transparent and open way with far more involvement and visibility to the industry.

  • Richard Bellis
    May 21, 2010 @ 7:00 pm


    These decisions (benefits only) are made for the sake of ESTABLISHING a union. If consensus cannot be reached by the group of composers which the AMPTP actually CARES about, there will be no union. . That is failure. Once collective bargaining is established, many issues can be raised for negotiation. Attempting to create the “perfect” union with all possible issues on the table will make the resistance that much stronger. This must be a step-wise process. There is no rush because the option is status quo – reversion to what we have now. The choice is simple. The WGA has not been (historically) interested in our affiliation. The fact that they are willing to endorse our affiliation with the Teamsters is a blessing. Don’t push it! There is an inherent risk to some unions by affiliating too closely with composers and lyricists. I will not put any specifics in writing but I think you might be aware of what I’m talking about.

    The only decision (“major policy decisions”) the organizing committee has made are those which will facilitate the successful establishment of a collective bargaining status for composers and lyricists. Rules about who will “run” the union are way down the road. We may not get past this first hurdle.

  • Mark Northam
    May 21, 2010 @ 7:29 pm


    I understand, however neither I nor anyone else I know is asking for “all possible issues” to be on the table at this point – that’s as much of an extreme case as we have now, where the unionizing effort has been dumbed down to a single issue at the cost of all other issues that could be pursued with different groups, such as the WGA.

    My point is that there can be a healthy balance somewhere here including addressing selected issues that have wide appeal and benefit to composers – know any composers that would object to NOT having to write free music as a condition of being considered for a job? To me, taking a stance against free music is a no-brainer and would only attract more support and participation to the union from composers at all levels of the business. I just don’t get how taking a stand against free music would drive ANY composer away from the AMCL, unless a composer is in the business of exploiting other composers by getting them to work for free.

    As far as other unions supporting composers, good point. After 4 months of AMCL/WGA negotiations that culminated with the WGA Executive Board unanimously approving sending a letter to its members supporting composers and speaking out against free music demands, the latest version of the AMCL organizing abruptly abandoned that effort AFTER the WGA Board had already approved the action! When the AMCL is not ready to accept that kind of support and move forward based on it, that sends a big message loud and clear to the WGA and other unions, not to mention the AMPTP: composers themselves are not even ready to argue against working for free. Or to put it another way, why stick your neck out and support composers when composers aren’t even willing to speak up for themselves against blatantly abusive practices such as free music?

    It’s a tragic, yet all too predictable response from an industry whose leaders sometimes seem afraid of their own shadows. Whether it’s getting shafted on PRO royalty rates for background instrumental music, or even speaking up against free music, in some ways our industry has a track record of apathy, fear and indifference. We can and must do better if we are going to forge a strong, independent trade union that takes on even a few of the many major issues we face as an industry today.

  • Richard Bellis
    May 21, 2010 @ 7:37 pm

    I’m afraid the “tragic, yet all too predictable response” is from you.
    When you say “We can and must do better” who exactly are you referring to?

    Where was any other attempt to unionize in the last 10 years. I must have missed the one you founded.

    Go to the WGA and post the response you get. Start a separate movement. Grab the attention of any other union and the AMPTP or the NLRB for that matter. Do something or than criticize! Please.

  • Mark Northam
    May 21, 2010 @ 8:20 pm


    First, as a note to the previous comments in this discussion, let’s not confuse the future negotiations with the AMPTP with the already-completed negotiations with the WGA that produced the WGA letter. Apples and oranges.

    Moving on to your post, it is a troubling response for groups who are unable and/or unwilling to endure differing viewpoints to take the “our way or the highway” stance, in essence telling everyone who doesn’t agree with them to go off and do their own thing.

    It is through disagreement and dissenting opinions that improvements and a more inclusive and representative result is forged, whether we’re talking about government or other representative organizations such as a trade union.

    What should be done? I’ve written about this before, but I’ll be happy to address it here… here are four basic things I believe the AMCL should pursue now – items that are separate from any benefits-only discussions with the AMPTP down the road:

    1. Honor the AMCL/WGA agreement and accept the WGA Executive Board’s gracious and courageous unanimous decision to actively support composers in opposing free music for spec/bake-offs.

    2. Open up AMCL Organizing Committee meetings in a practical and manageable way to composers who wish to observe or be part of the process. In a word, be transparent and inclusive. I’m sure halls like the Local 47 auditorium would be available at little or no cost to accommodate any number of composers who wish to observe, and teleconferences – now very cheap – could be used to link in composers who do not live in LA. Post recordings of the meetings on the AMCL website for those who cannot attend but are interested in the proceedings.

    3. Undertake a comprehensive industry survey to determine what composers believe are the most important issues (in addition to benefits) that should be addressed by a trade union and in what order (priority) they should be addressed. Results to be public and transparent, of course.

    4. Pursue more constructive agreements on basic issues with wide appeal, like the WGA agreement, with other related organizations such as the music editors guild, music supervisors’ organization (not sure if it’s an official guild yet), and others. This will strengthen and establish the AMCL prior to any AMPTP negotiations.

    Finally, a historical question for you, Richard. The unionization discussions circa 1995 which you were an active participant in as an advocate of affiliating with IATSE were abandoned, as I recall, shortly after an industry meeting where a number of composers became very concerned that writers royalties could become a negotiable part of union composing contracts. Additionally, concerns were raised that composers, as employers, would be prohibited from unionizing by the NLRB as happened in the 1908s. Now we have one of the industry’s most well-known employer of other composers (Mike Post) in a leadership position at the AMCL.

    My question to you: what in your opinion/experience is to prevent the current AMCL efforts from failing just as previous efforts did due to the role of composers as employers or the writers royalties concerns? And additionally, since you were involved with the IATSE/composer discussions at the time – do you think the Teamsters is a better choice than IATSE for affiliation?

  • May 24, 2010 @ 8:12 am

    I think open debate like this is mostly healthy. It’s invigorating and thought provoking to read such strong opinions and historical context from passionate advocates on both sides of key issues. Although I think the “where’s the union you founded?” comment was unnecessarily mean spirited and potentially incendiary. But everything else in this interchange has really made me think more critically about the issue.

    Not that my opinion matters much at this point in the debate. I’m primarily a videogame composer, and as such, fall outside the current scope of the AMCL’s objectives.

    However, the idea of walking before you run and having some patience in the evolution of a composers union and its agenda may be wise. Seeking health benefits only in the beginning, especially at a time when the nation’s attention is riveted on providing health care for the uninsured, seems like a very safe and winnable opening gambit.

    Although I despise the practice of creating free demos, and would CHEER the abolishment of bake-offs and other forms of uncompensated cattle calls, I think it may be smart to launch the AMCL with an easily achievable initial agenda. At least some composers would probably get something tangible out of it, and perhaps that small success would provide the traction necessary to actually get a composers union up and running. Once a functioning union exists, then additional objectives and strategies could be pursued. But without an initial victory leading to a functioning union, I fear nothing will happen at all.

    I don’t know. It’s not a field of expertise I have any experience in yet. But I am encouraged to see the two of you square off and trade opinions and information on the issue. Again, I think it’s mostly very healthy and good for our community.

    Let’s keep the dialog alive….!

    Chance Thomas
    (Avatar, Lord of the Rings Online, The ChubbChubbs!, King Kong)

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